Blog 🍎 School 30th November 2021

6 Ways to Start University Guidance with Middle Years Students

Profile image of James Leach
James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

The amount of time and thought that counsellors put into creating guidance strategies for students’ last year or two of school is impressive, and puts students on track to brighter futures.

But all that work doesn’t always leave a lot of time to extend guidance to middle years students. And while that’s understandable, it’s a missed opportunity!

Starting university research and application preparation early brings a whole host of benefits for you, your students, and the wider school community. Here are a few highlights:

  • Students can make informed decisions about subjects and extracurricular activities
  • Higher levels of engagement and motivation with schoolwork
  • Stronger commitment to extracurriculars (and therefore better extracurriculars)
  • Parents can become more involved in the university application process
  • Reduced stress for students when application season arrives

That’s not to say that you need to take on lots more work – we know you probably couldn’t even if you wanted to!

In this article, we’ll give you some simple, straightforward and effective ways to start the university guidance process with middle years students, even if you don’t have any scheduled time with them.

Read on to multiply your impact!

1) Start collecting key data in students’ middle years

This is the first step we’re suggesting for two reasons.

Firstly, it doesn’t require any face-time with students, so even if your school’s timetable doesn’t schedule sessions with younger students, you can still implement this step.

Secondly, it’s one of the most powerful things you can do, and will feed into every other step and every other aspect of your strategy!

What to collect

What exactly do we mean by key data when it comes to middle years students? It might vary depending on your specific school and students, but it’s going to be all the criteria that affect where students choose to apply, and what they hope to study.

Some of the data most valued by seasoned BridgeU counsellors is:

  • Teaching and learning methods preferred by each student
  • Students’ predicted grades
  • The subjects students are interested in pursuing
  • The countries students are considering for higher education
  • Students’ university campus preferences (e.g. busy and diverse or intimate and relaxed? In a city or the countryside?)

You can then use all of this information to start planning for when you do get scheduled time with students.

Armed with their ambitions, interests and abilities, you’ll be able to deliver really relevant and interesting information, events and resources from the get-go. And that in turn means much higher levels of engagement and motivation!

How to collect it

It’s all very well and good knowing what data to collect and how much it’ll help you, but you might be wondering how you can get hold of it – especially if you don’t have much interaction with younger students.

Again, the best method might depend on circumstances at your school, but there are definitely simple ways of accessing this information!

For example, you could ask form tutors or homeroom teachers to distribute short questionnaires which students can complete with them then and there.

If time is tight (and questionnaires getting lost or crumpled up in students’ bags isn’t a concern), you could also ask that students complete them at home.

Or, if consolidating forms and questionnaires isn’t your idea of a fun Thursday evening, you can use a free platform like BridgeU. You can assign tasks and self-assessments to your students and track when they’ve been completed.

The platform then displays the data as handy visualisations so you can see at a glance where students’ interests lie.

2) Increase middle years students’ exposure to universities

Students’ middle years are a great time to start dispelling some misconceptions they might have about university and getting them really excited about their options.

University fairs and visits

The best way to give students a more accurate and solid picture of going to university is to give them direct access! University visits, showcases and fairs are all great options, as is having school alumni, parents or other local professionals/students come and talk to them about their higher education experiences.

Ideally, you’ll have the data we just outlined to hand, so that you can plan really relevant events for students.

For example, if you know a lot of students are interested in STEM subjects, you could schedule a series of visits from institutions that are strong in these fields. These could cover key areas like:

  • What degree programmes are available
  • What it’s really like to study STEM at a higher level
  • What makes a really strong application
  • Careers in STEM
image of scientists for middle years students who are interested in stem

Independent research

Students can then use these larger-scale events to move into some more focused research.

It might seem early for them to look into specific degrees, but given there are so many wonderful courses available all around the world, they’ll need as much time to dive into them as possible! 

Ideally, students should base their research on their passions, their long term ambitions, and the subjects and institutions that have most piqued their interest during any university events. They can then look at degree courses across a range of countries, noting factors like:

  • Course content
  • Entry requirements
  • Campus or city
  • Student and international student populations
  • Fees and funding

Understandably, this could seem like quite a lot of work for middle years students who don’t have the immediate pressure or excitement of their older counterparts.

Luckily, there’s a really easy and engaging way for students to explore their options: the BridgeU platform. It gathers essential information on 28,000 universities all over the globe, presenting it clearly and dynamically so that students can draw easy comparisons and start picking out their favourites!

Plus, students get a personalised feed of research, articles, videos and other media – as well as exclusive access to virtual events – all about university exploration and application. That will work wonders in keeping them informed and excited about their options and lay crucial groundwork for their decision-making later on.

3) Set goals with middle years students

This step probably requires some one-on-one time with students to be as effective as possible. Luckily, the data you’ve collected will save you some time: you’ll already have an idea of each student’s interests and ambitions before you even meet!

It definitely is worth finding time to talk to students about their ambitions. Setting goals is a huge contributor to student success in all kinds of ways: it increases student motivation, self-esteem, focus and purpose, and translates to students working harder and better – to name but a few.

Tip: If scheduling one-on-one time with middle years students is tricky, you could perhaps ask another favour of your colleagues in students’ homerooms, registration classes or tutor groups. It might not be too disruptive to borrow one student at a time during these sessions.

Because university is still quite far away for middle years students, it’s a good idea to set both long and short term goals. For both, we’d recommend the SMART technique.

SMART is an acronym for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Often with middle years students, long term goals are very long term, often based on a (sometimes loose) idea of a career they’re aiming for. At this stage, their plans are probably quite vague, but with the SMART framework, you can help fill in more details.

With a more fully-formed long term goal, you can guide students backwards through the stepping stones needed to reach it. You’ll be breaking down their entire university research and application journey into specific and manageable chunks.

For example, if you have a middle years student who dreams of practising medicine, you could set some of the following goals:

  • Research different medical specialisms and create a ranking of which they’re most interested in over the weekend
  • Interview a doctor to create a one-page profile of them before the winter break
  • During the interview, ask what characteristics and skills a doctor needs. Identify extracurricular activities that might develop those
  • Sign up for two relevant extracurricular activities during the academic year
doctor looking at x rays

4) Help middle years students make strong subject choices

A huge benefit of increasing your interaction with middle years students is guiding them as they weigh up their academic options for their final years of school.

The fact is, the subjects students choose can genuinely open and close doors, so it’s important they make informed decisions.

Any university events you’ve been able to schedule will be invaluable here, as they’ll have given students foundational knowledge of what university entry requirements tend to look like.

Ideally, though, they’ll also look into entry requirements for degree programmes that interest them as part of the individual follow-up research we recommended.

They can then bring their favourite courses and any required or suggested subjects to meetings with you, and together you can create a carefully curated timetable of subjects for their final years.

5) Help middle years students make strong extracurricular choices

Here again, any university events you’ve arranged for middle years students lay an invaluable foundation. They give students a sense of what admissions tutors look for.

With these events, students can come to understand what you know all too well: that university applications aren’t just about academics. Increasingly, admissions officers are keen to see students’ passions and skills demonstrated outside the classroom.

You can find more advice on how to include extracurriculars in university applications, and – most importantly for middle years students – which are the most valuable activities to pursue, in this article. But we’ll lay out some brief guidance here.

Each student’s extracurriculars should be specific to their goals

The first thing to make clear is that students really don’t need to do it all. Following a tailored, thoughtful schedule of extracurriculars is a much better use of students’ time than trying to do a little bit of everything.

This is yet another example of why setting specific goals is so important!

Let’s imagine you have a student who dreams of owning a chain of local bakeries. Activities they could consider might be:

  • Joining the school’s cookery club
  • Attending baking classes
  • Enrolling in a business workshop or MOOC (Massive Open Online Course)
  • Taking part in a young entrepreneurs competition
  • Showcasing or selling some of their home-baked goodies on social media
  • Getting a part-time job/work experience in a bakery or cafe
  • Shadowing a local business owner

In this way, that student could still have a (very!) busy schedule and a good variety of activities, but they would all feed into one overall goal.

Not only does that show passion and drive to admissions officers and equip the student with skills they’ll genuinely need and use, it also means that they’ll actually enjoy their activities and stick with them!

a tray of unbaked cinnamon rolls as an aspiring baker in their middle years hones their skills

Students should choose extracurriculars that develop key skills

Aside from being specific to their goals, there are other aspects that can give certain extracurricular pursuits an edge when it comes to university applications and career readiness.

If students are stuck on which extracurriculars to choose, and/or if they don’t yet have clear university or career goals, there are still ways of focusing their extracurricular timetable.

Some of the skills and characteristics that admissions officers tend to value include:

  • Leadership
  • Personal development
  • Community impact
  • Time management
  • Teamwork
  • Technological skills
  • Creativity
  • Activism/conviction
  • Compassion
  • Reliability

Sometimes, though, it’s not clear to students – particularly those in their middle years – exactly which skills and characteristics each activity develops. It can be difficult for students to understand how much value a simple thing like being on the football team or volunteering at an animal shelter can add to an application.

That also means it’s often tricky for students to spot gaps in their skill-sets and spread their extracurricular efforts effectively.

Here again, BridgeU can help. Our Strategy Adviser encourages students to think laterally about all the experiences they’ve had, not just school clubs. It helps them to assess and understand the range of qualities each one demonstrates, and points out areas they might want to concentrate on more.

That way, middle years students can create a powerful plan for their extracurricular pursuits as they move into high school.

6) Involve middle years students’ parents

It’s a good idea to get parents involved in the guidance process as early as you can. If they’re clear on their children’s aspirations right from the start, they can keep their children on track and help them achieve these goals!

A good starting point can be hosting a large event for all middle years students’ parents. It’s a good chance to showcase your guidance programme and get them on board and in the know about what to expect.

But you’ll also want some one-on-one time if you can get it. One of the most significant parts of your role at this stage might be to temper parents’ expectations, and avoid them putting too much pressure on their children. Making sure they understand their child’s chances of getting a full-ride scholarship at one of the top three universities in the world are slim – no matter how brilliant their child is – is important.

Likewise, encouraging them not to pressure a budding journalist into pursuing chemical engineering can avoid a lot of conflict and upset.

That data we keep coming back to is also incredibly helpful here – it’s difficult to argue with statistics! If you can show parents what percentage of students from your school get into a specific institution, or how many applications the average student sends, you can help them understand what’s realistic.

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